To understand planet Arbella, one must pilot a spacecraft from the upper atmosphere to the lower, noticing the radiant horizon and all of the hopes that stream from it, then drop further toward the land below and watch as the city emerges from the clouds.
The first visual sensation will be that of watching a looping pattern. Nearly every mile of the planet is covered in the same patchwork of human objects: factories, hydroponic greenhouses, foundries, quarries and spaceports. As one descends, it becomes clear that among these boxy human objects, green humanoid figures labor.
These are the Innocents, so-called because of their lack of speech and awareness of time (reputedly). They came from another planet and were found to be highly adapted here, so they do all of the work that the machines cannot easily handle. For their labors they are rewarded with a blend of psychedelic and opiate drugs immersed in a blue wine.
Early settlers thought the Innocents to be some kind of experiment in genetic drift, since they picked up photosynthesis from plants and motion from animals. Approach an Innocent from behind, and you might think you are viewing a photosynthetic human, but when the Innocent turns around, you will see otherwise: where you expect a face is only a blank space with a single opening that serves as mouth and nose.
The Innocents navigate by sound, feel and something else, perhaps instinct or telepathy. Their lack of sight does not hinder them. In fact, Rob Lopez-Winthrop-Nguyen mused, they seem more efficient for the lack of distraction. He did not dislike the Innocents, but found them slightly creepy or alien, although such terms would be highly impolite.
He gave them instructions in a pidgin language that fit their intelligence, which was estimated to be that of a chimpanzee or smart dog. “Go fab, take-u ting, move box,” he said to one of his wards, being careful to roll his vowels so that the sound made sense to their ears. The innocent inclined its head slightly, in what Rob might think was a bow if he thought they were that advanced.
Rob looked out over the city. On this planet slightly larger than Mars back in his home solar system, perhaps four hundred humans lived, each an engineer like Rob in charge of enough land to constitute a small country, and enough hardware to out-produce the economies of several dozen of them. Machines drilled the ground, extracted minerals, and used nuclear power to grow the equivalent of millions of fields of crops in windowless greenhouses. The entire surface of the planet was covered in grey boxes connected by roads, rails and pipes.
Normally, Rob did not interact with Innocents directly. The robotic squawk boxes mounted on every pole barked out commands in the pidgin tongue through the voice synthesizer of the computers which were controlled by the computers that Rob controlled from the console he carried with him at all times. With his headset on, he could close his eyes and see a CAD-style drawing of the city which showed him readouts of all essential data, including the location of the forty thousand Innocents who worked in his region.
If he had to pick the least favorite part of his job… Innocents were sexless, so far as he knew, and did nothing but work, eat, defecate and immerse themselves in the blue wine, at which point they were useless until the next day. They ran off frequently, living in the temporarily abandoned storage units or unallocated factory areas, eating the plant and food waste dumped out of the factories. For this they had to compete with the mutant flies that had grown as big as seagulls on this new strange world. He suspected that Innocents might be eating those, too, and it repulsed him.
Technically — and this was the only mode of thought that he trusted — Innocents were independent contractors, so it was no one’s problem if they ran off. They had some way of reproducing and it made him queasy to think about such inferior creatures and what their genderless reproduction rituals must look like, but it meant a larger labor force to do the grunt work around the machines. He reflected on the perfected servitude of these stupid creatures: they could get paid all the blue wine they wanted, but no one ever offered to sell them tickets to elsewhere, and the Corpstate owned all the land and machines. They were here forever, in a state of suspended animation, because he was sure the machines would never end.
A trilling tone interrupted this reverie. He closed his eyes and looked deep into the virtual world of his console. A call was coming through — for him? — from sector 2117, which he recognized as being on the other side of the planet. He focused on the glowing icon and pulsed his eyes to answer. Immediately his ears filled with the sound of drunken laughter and a female voice.
“Hey, is Ramon there? Ramon Li-Jefferson?” said a gruff voice, husky like its own had been shouting. Inside the icon the video revealed a man, tawny-skinned and wide-eyed like himself, but with a beard and a cigar.
“No,” said Rob. “Just me. Who is this? And do you have multiple Engineers in the same sector?”
“Oh, sorry. Wrong number. Bye,” said the voice on the other end, and the call disconnected.
Back on the floor of one of his factories, Rob opened his eyes. He re-set a mental number in his head: 91. It had been 91 days since his previous human contact, and even if the call was a wrong number, it counted, he thought. He reflected on what seemed to be better times on the other side of the world, but then recalled the sombre tones of his mentor, who told him (among other things) that “someone always has it better than you,” and shrugged as if it were a fact of gravity or proton decay.
Engineers lived fairly isolated lives. The perks were good: all of the movies he could watch, free alcohol and gourmet food, a high salary and first choice of the latest gadgets to come out. He lived in a kingly suite high above the city in a tower otherwise dedicated to storage, where he had the penthouse floor. When people back home talked about him, they swooned at his credentials and salary. If he needed friendship, an AI would visit him through his console; if he needed physical affection (the accepted term for it) there were “companion robots,” androids with the bodies of the most beautiful women from earth and electronic brains. They were, he recalled, 412% more effective that human females in terms of sexual releases per worker-hour. None of it cost him a dime.
The only downside to this arrangement was that he had to stay here. Going home through the bends of non-linear space was disorienting and took months, during which time he needed a replacement, and Earth was slow in sending those. They could never get enough people to work here anyway because it was one of several thousand planets of this nature, and not even a really important one in the grand scheme of things. So: he stayed here for the better part of a decade at a time, then went back to his home planet where he had no apartment, his friends had moved and his parents were dead. He existed only as an abstraction, the prosperous uncle that his brother’s children would look up to.
He heard the female laugh from the phone call in his memory again, and felt his fist clench.
Rob closed his eyes, tired of the thought. His console instantly projected him into a world of facts, figures, dollar amounts and mathematically-precise drawings. Reaching down, he shut it off, and marched back toward the elevator. As he readied to rise above to the tube system which would shuttle him back to his empty but spacious apartment, he stopped as a slight sound intruded on his solitude. He followed his instinct for where the noise had come by walking over a mesh platform, down metal steps, through a conduit under an automated hydraulic press, and finally behind the storage units where raw materials temporarily waited for conversion through manufacture.
Now he walked silently, accustomed to feeling out skullduggery among the Innocents. He reached for the holster on his side. Innocents were generally not violent, but if you were alone and out of sight, they might attack. They were relatively easy to fend off, but he preferred a good hard engineering solution which happened when the shrouded corpse was carried out to the incinerator. He had upgraded a few from stupid to dead, he told himself, recalling how the last kill did not even merit an investigation. He would never say it out loud, because it was the least Engineer-like thing he could imagine to have a strong emotion overriding the supply/demand and cost/benefit curves, but he hated the Innocents and in times like this, he felt a sensation approximating pleasure at the thought of shooting one. The Innocents were what kept him here, among machines that otherwise could just about run themselves.
Behind unit 231-4302A he found them.
The green bodies were entangled in something like an embrace. He reached toward his holster, then let his hand drop. He was witnessing something no one had recorded before, or at least what looked like it — a romantic or sexual liaison between Innocents. He squeezed his eyes to command his console to record, but he had turned it off earlier. His fingers fumbled with the button to turn it on, then dropped off. The writhing did not look like mating itself, but some prelude to it, and it was strikingly ritualized and yet spontaneous, ruining his image of these creatures as automaton-like oversized bacteria who did nothing but obstruct his work.
As he watched, one of the pair detached and fled. Another Innocent had come up behind them and was gesturing an erratic semaphore of emotions. The other of the pair then fled in turn, and the gesturer returned to the larger group a hundred yards away. Rob picked up his speed and intercepted the latter half of the pair, grasping a wrist. When the creature turned around and the non-face stared at him, he recoiled in repulsion. He looked down to see engorged sexual organs; this was a She.
His hand held her tight, but she made one of the high, bleating sounds that these animals did when disturbed. Irate, Rob pressed his hand over her mouth and pushed her against the wall of the storage container. The spasms of panic subsided at first, but then accelerated. Later he recalled events like a dream: the fear of being discovered leading to a need to dominate in order to silence, but then with domination, an ancient process took form. Having intended merely to shut up a life-form he viewed as little more than a beast, he found himself engaged in fervent copulation.
It was like no sensation a sex-bot could ever give.
The mere alien nature of it was stimulating, like risk in childhood or danger in war, a spicy foreign super-stimulus and swelling of his ego with the breaking of taboo simultaneously. He had crossed all lines, and yet he was still supreme, in command of his own life and making his own choices. Even in this place that was like the highest-paid jail sentence in history.
Months later he found himself on a balcony, drunk on champagne that cost more per bottle than most people earned in a month back on earth. He no longer cared; the money was there to burn, and he would probably never get off this rock, anyway. As he looked down from his penthouse suite, he saw a group of Innocents clustering around the base of a nearby tower. Closing his eyes, he had his console seize a local camera and zoom in.
The throng of green bodies seemed centered around one individual, smaller than the rest. As he adjusted distance and focus, he saw that it was a child facing the wall. Rotten vegetables and the heads of dead mutant flies pelted its back, but still it turned away from the mob raging in mute antipathy. Rob triggered an alarm through the speakers to drive them off, and as they went, he saw the child turn.
A face. The thing had a face. He winced, then zoomed in again. On the green humanoid body there were now eyes, nose and mouth, with an expressive nature to the face that evinced familiarity. He looked again. He was looking at the daughter he would never have had otherwise, both of him and alien to him, ensuring both his hope and doom.
He no longer lived on an alien world. Aliens both, it had claimed them, and of that union, created a blighted future. He reached out to the hybrid, and together they watched the alien dawn that felt as natural as his fading memories of Earth.